Published March 21, 2014 in The Greenville News (filed under Lifestyle)
By Charles Sowell, Special to The Greenville News
The inclusion of 140 acres of the old Conestee Mill, dam and lake on the National Register of Historic Places can only help broaden educational opportunities in the area, said Dave Hargett, director and founder of Lake Conestee Nature Park.
The area, on the Reedy River six miles south of Greenville, received the designation last week from the South Carolina State Historic Preservation Office.
“Frankly, I was surprised they included the lake, too,” Hargett said. “At first I thought it would make it more difficult to make needed repairs to the dam. But on second thought, I felt this might actually make our job easier.”
Grist mills and sawmills were constructed at the site as early as the 1790s, Hargett said. The lands surrounding and including the present-day unincorporated community of Conestee were acquired by Vardry McBee in the 1830s.
McBee, recognized as the “Father of Greenville,” had textile operations at the location by 1837. “McBee Factory,” as it was known, included a paper mill, and woolen and cotton operations. After 1875 the mill was known as Reedy River Factory until being re-chartered in 1909 as Conestee Mill.
H.J. Brand has owned the mill since 1978 and uses it today for storage space.
He’s high on the historic designation and said it can only help the area grow commercially. The 83-year-old pushes projects like his plans to beautify the small village by putting community signs at both ends of the village and a historic marker at the McBee Chapel, also listed as a national historic spot in the just-designated area.
He is accepting donations for the project and asks anyone who wishes to donate to make checks payable to the Conestee Landscaping Project and mail them to the Belmont Fire Department at P.O. Box 66, Conestee 29636.
Hargett said the historic designation will help with Conestee projects like the education efforts at the nature park, giving young people avenues for education in the surrounding area as well.
According to Hargett, a major flood in August 1908 damaged the dam and mill. Repairs were made, and in 1909 the mill was re-chartered by new owners.
Lake Conestee was originally 130 acres when the dam was built in 1892, but it rapidly became silted in after 1940, due to the construction of the Greenville Army Air Base (later Donaldson Air Force Base) in 1943, the construction of I-85, and the subsequent rapid development of greater Greenville and the Reedy River watershed upstream, Hargett said.
Lake Conestee and the dam are owned by the Conestee Foundation, established in 1999 to preserve the property and create Lake Conestee Nature Park.
Hargett said trustees of the foundation started talking about applying for a historic designation even before the park was established as a wildlife sanctuary and nature park. Today the park covers 400 acres of ecologically diverse conditions supporting a remarkable variety of wildlife.
Lake Conestee Nature Park is owned by the Conestee Foundation, a private nonprofit 501(c) (3) organization. The mission of the Conestee Foundation is to conserve its Lake Conestee properties as a nature park and wildlife sanctuary for public recreation and nature education.